May 10, 2014 8:05 pm

Hot air balloon catches fire in Virginia; missing passenger identified

DOSWELL, Va. – A family spokeswoman says a University of Richmond women’s basketball team staff member was one of two passengers on a hot air balloon that crashed in Virginia.

Family spokeswoman Julie Snyder told The Associated Press on Saturday that Natalie Lewis’ body has not been found.

Lewis was director of basketball operations at Richmond and a former swimmer there.

The remains of the pilot and the second passenger have been recovered. They have not been identified.

The three were in a balloon Friday night that witnesses said crashed amid screams for help from the balloon.

The balloon and the basket holding the pilot also have yet to be located.

The crash occurred ahead of a weekend balloon fest in Doswell 40 kilometres north of Richmond.

WATCH: Search teams looked through the night to find the wreckage and possible survivors.

Because of the time elapsed since the crash about 8 p.m. Friday, the search for Lewis’ body has shifted from a rescue operation to a mission to recover the remains, Geller said. More searchers were called in Saturday.

Police received eyewitness reports that two occupants either fell or jumped from the burning balloon after it struck a power line.

Carrie Hager-Bradley said she saw the balloon in flames on her way home from the grocery store and heard people yelling, according to WWBT TV.

WATCH: Eyewitness says she saw two people jump from the balloon

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“They were just screaming for anybody to help them,” the station quoted her as saying. “‘Help me, help me, sweet Jesus, help. I’m going to die. Oh my God, I’m going to die,”‘ Hager-Bradley said she heard one person screaming.

The crash occurred near the Meadow Event Park in rural Caroline County, where the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival was being held. The area is about 40 kilometres north of Richmond.

The festival was scheduled to begin officially on Saturday, but was holding a special kickoff event Friday for about 740 people. Organizers cancelled the rest of the festival.

Twenty balloonists from the Mid-Atlantic region were to participate in the weekend festival, said Greg Hicks, a spokesman for Meadow Event Park.

“It’s just a shocking situation for everyone,” Hicks said.

Some hot air balloons landed safely in Debra Ferguson’s yard, The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg reported.

She said one of the men in the balloons pointed up at another still in the air and said he thought it might be in trouble.

“As soon as we looked up, the thing blew up right there,” Ferguson told the newspaper. “All I heard was, ‘Oh my God, Oh my God,’ and all you saw was the top of the balloon still flying, but all of the basket was gone. All of the flames just disappeared. … It was like a match – poof – and then it was gone.”

© The Canadian Press, 2014

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